The Draughtsman's Contract  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Draughtsman's Contract is a 1982 British film written and directed by Peter Greenaway. The film is a period piece set in 1694. It was originally produced for Channel 4. The score was by Michael Nyman and borrows extensively from Henry Purcell. Greenaway wrote the script. The film uses extensive and elaborate costume designs, but has most of the action shot on location in the formal gardens and maze of Groombridge Place Garden, making good use of a limited budget.



Mr Neville (Anthony Higgins), a young and arrogant artist, is contracted to produce a series of 12 landscape drawings of an estate by Mrs Virginia Herbert (Janet Suzman) for her absent and estranged husband. Part of the contract is that Mrs Herbert agrees "to meet Mr Neville in private and to comply with his requests concerning his pleasure with me." Several sexual encounters between them follow. Later he makes a similar contract with Mrs Herbert's married, yet childless, daughter. In the second contract, however, he agrees to comply with her pleasure. A number of curious objects appear in Neville's drawings, which point ultimately to the murder of Mr Herbert, whose body is discovered in the moat of the house. The drawings appear to implicate Neville.


The original cut of the film was about three hours long. The opening scene was about 30 minutes long, and showed each character talking, at least once, with every other character. Possibly to make the film easier to watch, Greenaway edited it to 103 minutes. The opening scene is now about 10 minutes long and no longer shows all the interactions among all of the characters.

The final version provides fewer explanations to the plot's numerous oddities and mysteries. The main murder mystery is never solved, though little doubt remains as to who did it. The reasons why there is a living statue in the garden or why Mr Neville attaches so many conditions to his contract were also more developed in the first version. It could be said that, rather than make the film more confusing, it adds to the sense of mystery and wonder it provides.

Themes in the movie include power and deceit. A curious deceit perpetrated on the audience is a set of allusions about where the house is; some allude to the Southampton area, but the house is in fact further east, in Kent. This is because the woman who owned the house in the 1980s didn't want the public searching out her house and traipsing around it. These explanations are also used by characters in the movie.


Michael Nyman's score is derived from grounds by Henry Purcell overlaid by new melodies. The original plan was to use one ground for every two of the twelve drawings, but Nyman states in the liner notes that this was unworkable. Ironically, the ground for one of the most popular pieces, "An Eye for Optical Theory," is now considered to be probably composed by William Croft, a contemporary of Purcell. The goal was to create a generalized memory of Purcell, rather than specific memories, so a piece as recognized as "Dido's Lament" was not considered an acceptable source of a ground. Purcell is credited as a "music consultant."

The album was the fourth album release by Michael Nyman and the third to feature the Michael Nyman Band.

Track listing

  1. Chasing Sheep Is Best Left to Shepherds 2:33 (King Arthur, Act III, Scene 2, Prelude (as Cupid descends))
  2. The Disposition of the Linen 4:47 ("She Loves and She Confesses Too" (Secular Song, Z.413))
  3. A Watery Death 3:31 ("Chaconne" from Suite No. 2 in G Minor)
  4. The Garden Is Becoming a Robe Room 6:05 ("Here the deities approve" from Welcome to all the Pleasures (Ode); E minor ground in Henry Playford's collection, Musick's Hand-Maid (Second Part))
  5. Queen of the Night 6:09 ("So when the glitt'ring Queen of the Night" from The Yorkshire Feast Song)
  6. An Eye for Optical Theory 5:09 (Ground in C minor (D221) [attributed to William Croft])
  7. Bravura in the Face of Grief 12:16 ("The Plaint" from The Fairy-Queen, Act V)

The first music heard in the film is, in fact, a bit of Purcell's song, "Queen of the Night". "The Disposition of the Linen", in its Nyman formulation, is a waltz, a form that postdates Purcell by approximately a century and a half.


Performed by the Michael Nyman Band

The album was issued on compact disc in 1989 by Virgin Records, marketed in the United States by Caroline Records under their Blue Plate imprint. Initially this was indicated with a sticker; it was later incorporated into the back cover design in a much smaller size.

The entire album has been rerecorded by the current lineup of the Michael Nyman Band. See The Composer's Cut Series Vol. I: The Draughtsman's Contract.


L'avant-scène cinéma, n° 333, octobre 1984, "Peter Greenaway: Meurtre dans un jardin anglais"

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